How Eating Cotton Balls For Weight Loss Can Kill You

Dieting to lose weight is nothing new. From the Atkins Diet to the Zone Diet, meal plans and food hacks have existed for decades, all with the goal of helping people shed pounds. According to the Los Angeles Times, diet advice goes at least as far back as the 1500s, when a man named Alvise Cornaro wrote a book about limiting food intake.

Some diets are similar to Cornaro's, recommending eating in moderation and not consuming more than you can stomach. But others are more extreme, touting the supposed benefits of cutting out entire food groups or replacing meals with low-calorie shakes or juices. Then there are diets like the cotton ball diet, a weight loss strategy that ABC News says may have started with models but surfaced online in 2013.

The cotton ball diet involves ingesting cotton balls, usually soaked in juice, to trick the stomach into feeling full, even without eating food. Unsurprisingly, eating cotton balls can be extremely dangerous — and even deadly.

Here's why the cotton ball diet can be deadly

Though the idea of eating cotton balls to lose weight has been around for at least a decade, it's one that experts advise against trying. Besides not offering any nutritional value, as OSF Healthcare's dietitian Nathan Hammam notes, cotton balls can also be harmful to the digestive system. According to Healthline, cotton balls can't be digested in the body, so they remain in the stomach, eventually creating a mass that blocks the digestive tract. This mass can cause pain, abdominal swelling, and infection, and in many cases, it will need to be surgically removed. Failing to do so can lead to tissue death that may be fatal.

Verywell Mind also says that cotton balls, even when soaked in liquid, can be a choking hazard and may become lodged in the throat or esophagus. This, too, can cause death.

Considering the risks involved, the cotton ball diet is generally considered a form of disordered eating. And though it isn't classified as an eating disorder on its own, it may develop alongside one, such as anorexia or bulimia. According to STRIPED and the Academy for Eating Disorders, an eating disorder-related death occurs every 52 minutes in the U.S.

If you need help with an eating disorder, or know someone who does, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

Safer ways to feel full, even when trying to lose weight

With how dangerous the cotton ball diet can be, it's best not to view it as a "diet" but instead as a risky form of disordered eating. "[S]wallowing a synthetic cotton ball is like dipping your T-shirt in orange juice and eating it," Brandi Koskie, managing editor of Diets in Review, told ABC News. Rather than essentially eating your T-shirt in cotton-ball form, there are plenty of healthier alternatives for staying full while trying to lose weight.

Mayo Clinic suggests consuming large quantities of foods and drinks that are low in calories. This can include foods with high water content, like fruits and vegetables. Sipping water before eating is another way to suppress appetite while staying hydrated. It's also helpful to incorporate fiber-rich foods into your meals, since fiber takes more time to digest, keeping the body satisfied longer than low-fiber foods. Try whole grains, beans, and fresh fruits and veggies.

A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also showed that protein can increase satiety. Topping a salad with chicken or tossing tofu into a veggie soup may help fill your stomach for longer.